The most eco-friendly drain cleaner is the one you don’t use. Drain cleaning can be green and yuck-free.
Commercial drain cleaners contain powerful and dangerous chemicals like sodium hydroxide (caustic soda, lye), sodium hypochlorite (bleach), and sulfuric acid. Child resistant packaging and warning labels are required by law.
DANGER: KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. CAN CAUSE BURNS ON CONTACT. HARMFUL IF SWALLOWED. READ BACK LABEL CAREFULLY.
This post will explore the environmental impact of drain cleaners; provide a solution for removing hair clogs without drain cleaners, and offer preventative measures to keep drains running smoothly.
Environmental Impact of Drain Cleaners
Americans dump a substantial amount of drain cleaners down our slow moving and clogged drains.
For example, just one retail product, Liquid-Plumr Foaming Pipe Snake which comes in 17 oz. plastic bottles weighing 1.1 pounds each, sold 1.9 million units and racked up $8.7 million in sales in 2012 / 2013.1
The environmental impact of transporting liquids was discussed in the What is the Environmental Impact of Bottled Water? post. Water and other liquids, like drain cleaners, are heavy and require a lot of fuel to transport, mostly by trucks burning fossil fuels which emit greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. In the example above, 504,687 gallons of drain cleaner weighing 2,090,000 pounds were transported from factories to stores to our homes — that is just one product, for one year.
A not insignificant amount of energy and water goes into producing drain cleaner and making its plastic containers and shipping packaging. After the drain cleaner is used up, its container most likely ends up in a landfill contributing to our already dismal recycling rate for plastic containers and packaging of 13.5%.2
I believe drain cleaners are unnecessary and wasteful products that we can do without.
Removing a Hair Clog without Drain Cleaners
A few weeks ago, I noticed my bathtub shower drain was starting to run sluggishly. Like any non-handy person, with an aversion to gunk, who doesn’t want to pour nasty chemicals down their drain, I did nothing and hoped it would magically fix itself. It did not. It got worse.
I thought to myself, “There must be other people like me who need a green and yuck-free method for clearing out a hair clog.” So I approached my creative and mechanically inclined spouse who came up a solution that doesn’t require dismantling anything and can be accomplished with a plunger and plastic container. We tried it out in a tub shower filled with 2 inches of soapy water. It worked.
Unclogging a Bathtub or Shower Drain – Green and Yuck-free
Note: the overflow in a tub shower must be covered so air is pushed down into the drain by the plunger instead of out the overflow. For stall showers, all you need is a plunger.
- Place a soft flexible plastic container over the overflow (a blender lid or pint-size yogurt container works well).
- While holding the lid/container tight against the wall of the tub, place the plunger over the drain and push down. You should feel a slight tug on the lid/container as the plunger creates air pressure. If you don’t feel anything, reseat the lid/container to get a tight seal or try a different container that is more flexible.
- Work the plunger up and down until you feel the clog loosening and the drain starts flowing.
- Continue this process until the drain is flowing freely, then turn the tap on and run a little water down the drain. Voilà.
Keep Drains Running Smoothly – Preventative Measures
Drains seem to clog at the most inconvenient times, like on Thanksgiving or late at night. It’s never too late to start a new habit of taking preventative action.
The main causes of kitchen sink clogs, grease and food scraps, can be prevented. Pour warm grease in a jar that can withstand heat and when it is full then put the grease jar in the trash. If grease does go down the sink, flush it out with warm water. Instead of pushing a pile of potato peels into the garbage disposal or putting them in the trash and sending them to a landfill, compost them and provide food for your garden or your neighbor’s.
Bathtubs and Showers
Hair is the number one cause of bathroom drain clogs. The more long-haired people in the family, the greater the chance of a clog. Place an inexpensive removable stainless steel mesh cover over the drain (especially in tubs and showers) to catch hair. I just bought one. I can’t believe I didn’t try this before, duh.
Periodically Clean Out Drains
Periodically clean kitchen and bathroom drains with a combination of baking soda and vinegar. This method will not dissolve hair, so for clog-free tubs and showers, combine this process with the mesh cover.
- Dry off the drain cover to prevent the baking soda from clumping.
- Sprinkle ½ cup of baking into the drain (it needs to go down into the drain, not sit on the surface).
- Pour ½ cup of white vinegar down the drain.
- The baking soda and vinegar will bubble and fizz which means it’s doing its work.
- After 15 minutes or so, run warm water down the drain for a minute or two.
So you can see, between employing preventative measures and clearing drains yourself, you need never purchase another container of toxic wasteful drain cleaner.
- Composting Part 1 – You’re Going to Do What?
- Water Saving Shower Ideas – Inline Shower Shut Off Valve
- Water Saving Shower Ideas – Low Flow Showerhead
- What is the Environmental Impact of Bottled Water?
- Statista – Sales of the leading drain cleaner brands in the U.S. 2012 / 2013 (account required to login)
- U.S. EPA – Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2010
- Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (look up health and environmental hazards of specific chemicals)
- Reference Data Sheet for Chemical and Enzymatic Drain Cleaners, by William D. Sheridan, CIH, CHMM
- Tips Bulletin –50+ Amazing Uses of Baking Soda, by Joan Clark
- Treehugger – Is There a Eco-Friendly Alternative to Caustic Drain Cleaners?
- U.S. EPA – Learn About Chemicals Around Your House – Drain Cleaners
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission – Federal Hazardous Substances Act
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission – National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (database of causes and outcomes of hospital emergency room visits)
- U.S. Government Printing Office – Poison Prevention Packaging
- U.S. Government Printing Office – Substances named in the Federal Caustic Poison Act
- Wikipedia – Drain Cleaner
- WiseGeek – What Are the Pros and Cons of a Sulfuric Acid Drain Cleaner?